First timer holiday-dinner survival advice

Ah, here they are again, those holiday months in which millions of people who never, ever cook suddenly find themselves roasting birds the size of Labradors and accompanying them with 27 side dishes.

There is a good reason the Butterball people offer a toll-free lifeline for turkey emergencies this time of year. Once, while waiting to be on a talk show in Chicago, I met a woman who answers those cries for help and who finds it very fulfilling.

"I'm the person who saves Thanksgiving!" she explained. To that, I might add, she's the person who saves lives. I'd like to join her this year with a few holiday-dinner survival tips of my own. Let's start with the most fundamental advice of all:

Thaw the darned turkey. In the refrigerator. Not on the counter. And especially not in the microwave, which is as ruinous as it is dangerous.

Try a fresh turkey for a change. From a butcher. Yes, butchers still exist, and most stock never-frozen, free-range birds that are really flavorful.

Beware of deep-frying. I'm not saying not to do it -- deep-fried turkey is a delicious Southern confection. But, unfortunately, every holiday season a startling number of poultry Rambos burn their decks, their houses, their pets or themselves trying to make one.

Innovate -- but not too much. The holidays are about traditions. As such, they are not the time to throw the classics out the window. If you want to introduce some new wines or unusual additional side dishes, great. But people are expecting the Holiday Greatest Hits.

Delegate. If you're overwhelmed, consider throwing a potluck. Not only does this spread the work around, but it also allows other people to share in the culinary glory.

Plan and work ahead. Many holiday favorites can be made a day or two in advance without suffering: Stuffing and cranberry sauce come to mind.

Deconstruct your bird. If you're nervous about cooking a giant flightless fowl, take the easy way out: Roast pieces instead. Buy a breast and as many legs as you want, and you can produce a platter of poultry much faster. Bonus: You can tell the kids that this year's turkey had seven legs.

Courtesy Ted Allen on foodnetwork.com

For more information, visit www.foodnetwork.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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